Writing Habits: Why 500 Words A Day Works For Me (and might work for you)

I'll admit it; I'm jealous of everyone who gets to participate in NaNoWriMo each November. There is NO WAY I can write a novel in November.  I am a high school English teacher. You can try to inspire me by saying that I can do anything I put my mind to...blah, blah, blah,  but it is physically and mind-numbingly impossible for me to write an entire novel in a month and still meet the needs of 100+ students, never mind all the reading and paperwork that goes along with it.

I know it's not only teachers who face NaNoWriMo envy. You may be working at an office job that requires loads of reading, writing, and number crunching to the point where letters blur into unrecognizable shapes by evening.  You probably take paperwork home to finish. You may be a stay-at-home parent who is so exhausted by the needs of your children that you don't even have time to read a novel in a month, never mind write one. But I can write at least 500 words each day. And so could you.

Writing 500 words a day may seem too easy to some writers and daunting to others.  Some days I can write 500 words in 20-30 minutes. Other days it takes over two hours of bloodletting before I get there.  Then there are those magical days when the words won't stop flowing from my fingertips, and I've lost track of space and time and eating.  Instead of 500 words, I hit 2K.

Here's the secret: It's not about the number. It's about the daily commitment.  It's about creating a habit of the mind.

A few things happen when you commit to daily writing:

1. You feel more like a writer. You walk around with a kind of inner satisfaction that you are accomplishing something no one else can see. Yet.

2. The story has time to marinate in your subconscious, and in turn your subconscious helps you fill in the story. The pulse of the characters stays fresher in your mind and carries into your dreams.  Fantasy and reality start to mix, and you find yourself coming up with dialogue in the middle of a grocery store checkout line. You start to zone out in mid-conversation with people to scribble notes.  The act of creating becomes second nature.

3. You stop beating yourself up about not writing because you are writing.  Writer's block has a snowball effect on procrastination.  Writing every day stops the avalanche of white page misery.

4. When you miss a day, which inevitably happens, you care. You defend your territory the next day. You snarl at people and demand they give you space to get the 500 words down on paper.

5. Your word count grows. And grows. When you write at least 500 words every day, you have 15K by the end of the month! And guess what? The magic of 500 words a day is that many times, you will get into the flow and write much more.That's the difference between establishing a writing habit and only writing when you have a chance or when the muse strikes.  You renew the promise to yourself as a writer each day  rather than letting life keep your pages blank.

And yes, of course sometimes I take a vacation from writing to refuel, to do other creative things, be inspired by the world, or when life throws me a curveball. But once that inspiration hits, I’m back in daily writing mode.

Inspired? I'd love to hear from other writers who have demanding day jobs.  Has 500 words a day worked for you? What else have you tried?

(This post first appeared in July 2014 on writingchallenge.org.)